Good Coach, Bad Coach: What does a good Agile coach do?

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from people about engagements with so-called Agile coaches. They want their teams to perform better and, from what they’ve learned and heard, they believe Agile is a way to address that. So they spend a bunch of money on individuals claiming to be Agile coaches hoping to find Agile goodness, but they end up just being frustrated and a little poorer. Even worse, their teams get frustrated, too, and sometimes the whole Agile transformation is put at risk because of the bad experience.

So what does a good Agile coach do?

1. A good Agile coach meets you where you are.
A good Agile coach assesses your understanding and use of Agile practices and uses that as the starting point for the engagement. They don’t lay advanced concepts on you when you’re just starting out and they don’t talk about the “101” stuff when you’re a mature Agile shop. It’s like being taught calculus in kindergarten or basic anatomy when you’re a practicing surgeon. One framework an Agile coach might use to approach the engagement is Shu Ha Ri (thanks for sharing, Christine Li). A colleague of mine and one of my company’s Agile coaches got to learn about Shu Ha Ri firsthand with one of the parents of Agile, Alistair Cockburn. The bottom line is an Agile coach shouldn’t be Ri-ing when they should be Shu-ing and vice versa

2. A good Agile coach brings practical, relevant experience.
A good Agile coach has a breadth and depth of experience working with different organizations and different environments in different situations such that they’ve developed an expert perspective. That expert perspective helps the coach diagnose what’s going on, both good and bad, and identify changes the team or organization might want to try to improve performance. The better the perspective, the more accurately and completely the coach should be able to pinpoint the problems and the more valuable the solutions will be. The coach shouldn’t get too prescriptive, though. If they do, not only do they hamper the team’s creativity and innovation, they also hurt buy-in from the team for any changes the coach suggests (mandates). They’ve become a dictator, not a guide. See the next point.

3. A good Agile coach helps you find your own answers.
A good Agile coach is not necessarily going to give you answers as much as walk you through a process of identifying the problems that are plaguing you and coaching you to find solutions to those problems yourself. Which solution do you think you’ll have more buy-in for — the one you were given or the one you came up with yourself? (Robert Cialdini describes this effect extremely well in his book Influence. Thanks for getting it for me, Derek Coburn) There’s a balance here with #2, though. It’s actually pretty frustrating for a team knowing the coach is going all Socratic Method on them and that the coach likely already has the answer based on experience. There’s only so many times you can hear, “So what do you think?” before thinking, “And I’m paying you how much to ask me that question over and over again?” One organization I’ve worked with described these people as “life coaches — not Agile coaches.” Eeesh.

4. A good Agile coach helps you get results.
When all is said and done (and the money spent), a good Agile coach helps you get better results. Those results could be more velocity, better quality, more collaboration, or all of the above. Whatever you’re looking for, there should be a return for your money, time, and effort based on the goals you established at the beginning of the coaching engagement (it’s very important to do this!).

When you’re thinking about engaging an Agile coach, make sure anybody you consider bringing in checks the boxes on all four of these. Don’t put your Agile transformation or the performance of your organization at risk.

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